Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria is calling for a truce in class warfare. In an newly published essay in The Alantic, entitled “The Lines That Divide America,” Dean Nohria tackles such highly provocative issues of privilege, social mobility, and the American Dream to conclude that these issues are “tearing America apart.”
“Americans,” writes the India-borned dean of HBS, “must search for ways to restore a sense of fairness, reduce the time we spend gawking at those more fortunate than us or resenting those who are less fortunate—and prevent the divisions between these lines from hardening any further.”
The dean’s thoughts are based on a recently read book by UC-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Hochschild argues that, for many years, America’s economic and social class structure resembled an orderly queue. “The promise was that if you worked hard and honorably, you would make progress toward the American Dream,” writes Nohira. “This meant a settled life, grounded in a job that paid wages sufficient to own a nice home, raise a family, spend time with friends and family, find community in neighborhood and church, and live a life of dignity. For decades, America’s economy allowed people with a high school education and few specialized skills to take their place in a line that provided a steady pace of upward mobility.”
‘CLASS LINES IN AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BECOME FAR MORE DISTINCT & VISIBLE”
Access to the line that delivers the American Dream in exchange for hard work is now both limited and unevenly granted, argues Hochschild. “Worse yet,” believes Dean Norhia, “white working-class citizens perceive others—mainly minorities and immigrants—to be unfairly cutting ahead of them in line. And members of the white working class believe the government, rather than enforcing the fair process they had come to expect, is increasingly aiding and abetting these line-cutters.”
Norhia notes that class lines are nothing new. “But in many parts of American life, they have become far more distinct and visible in recent years. Not long ago, even though people grew up on different sides of the tracks and in different parts of town, they met at the grocery store, the bank, and the post office. This gave them an opportunity to develop at least a modicum of mutual understanding. Now there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people in different lines to ever encounter each other in person. They go to different schools, shop at different stores, and rarely interact. Yet they are hyper-aware of each other due in part to the ubiquity of social media and television. You can gawk at the lives of the privileged on Instagram, tap into the resentment of the white working class on Brietbart, and see the plight of the disenfranchised on Vice. This ready visibility has unleashed a range of emotions, including resentment, entitlement, envy, and despair—and it’s tearing America apart.
“These emotions have a pernicious and corrosive effect on American ideals. What makes America’s culture special is that it celebrates positive emotions—ambition, hope, doggedness—that have been sustained by a shared belief in the promise of social mobility, the opportunities people have for moving ahead in line or from one line to another. Over the last few years, research has pointed to the reduction of social mobility in America; increasingly, the line into which you are born seems to determine your life prospects. The key to reducing the divisiveness in America lies in restoring shared confidence that everyone who is willing to work toward upward mobility can still credibly aspire to it.”
HBS ENROLLED NEARLY 100 MBA CANDIDATES LAST YEAR WHO WERE THE FIRST IN THEIR FAMILY TO GO TO COLLEGE
Nohria says that almost 100 MBA candidates—out of a total of about 940—were first generation college students, what he calls an “imperfect” effort to help the issue. ”Americans,” he added, “need to understand and empathize with those who are in lines different from their own. For me, that responsibility starts close to home. Many regard Harvard Business School, where I serve as dean, as offering its students an all-but-guaranteed path into the lines for the privileged. That places a particular burden on us to ensure our students understand their responsibility to create value before they claim value, and their need to foster economic opportunities and a better life not just for themselves, but for others.
“We also try to make it easier to gain access to the line. Last year, for example, we matriculated almost a hundred students who were first in their family to go to college, and we actively recruit students from a range of employers, including social enterprises and the military. Once they’re here, we expose students to cases that describe the challenges of the working class and the impoverished. Through intensive, small-group, field immersion courses, our students pursue projects whose primary aim is to help them develop genuine empathy for and an understanding of those whose lives are different than their own. In our narcissistic age, this virtue doesn’t always come naturally, but we use various means to encourage them to understand that true leaders are not those who claim that title for themselves, but who are looked to for leadership by others.
“These efforts are imperfect, but Hochschild’s book makes clear how necessary they are—and how much more we all have to do to better understand those who may not be in the same line as us.”